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Consensus on a compromise

Nick Grabbe

A broad consensus seems to be emerging that a compromise plan to apply for state money to help finance a new elementary school is the best way to provide healthy buildings for our children without enormous tax increases.

But you’d never suspect that from reading a guest column in this week’s Amherst Bulletin. It poses lots of questions and claims that a thorough process for receiving public comment was somehow incomplete. This column employs a rhetorical technique called “sea-lioning.” I’ll explain, but first some background.

On Monday night, the Town Council will discuss the compromise plan and will vote on it April 1. This vote is important because the state funding authorities have said they want Amherst to show that it has reached consensus on a plan before they consider providing millions of dollars to help finance the project. The School Committee voted unanimously to support the compromise. Meanwhile, other towns are competing for this state money.

It makes sense for the state to make this request. Three years ago, a small number of Town Meeting members derailed a plan, approved by the School Committee and voters, to build two new elementary schools on the same site with state money. This was a major reason why voters overwhelmingly approved our new charter 12 months ago.

Superintendent Mike Morris has now come up with a compromise plan. It involves building one new elementary school for 600 children but abandoning the proposal for it to include only the upper grades. If approved, Amherst would have only two elementary schools around 2025.

Opponents of the compromise plan want three elementary schools, although that would greatly increase the cost to taxpayers is and is no longer necessary because of declining enrollment. Amherst has been talking about replacing Fort River and Wildwood Schools for many years. Fort River’s problems have been known for over 25 years, and now Wildwood has been shown to have poor air quality. The Town Meeting rejection escalated the cost of replacing them by millions of dollars, and further delay would increase the ultimate cost even further.

More time spent circling this issue means our kids and their teachers will spend more years with asthma and seasonal affective disorder,” says Heather Sheldon, a parent and architect who has looked closely at the options for Fort River.

The essence of a compromise is that it attempts to locate a middle ground where neither side gets all they want. So it’s not surprising that the three-schools-or-bust folks don’t like every aspect of this compromise.

In the Bulletin column, the writers pose a series of questions that imply that Amherst doesn’t have enough information to make a decision. This is where “sea-lioning” comes in. One definition of this technique is “bad-faith requests for evidence, or repeated questions, the purpose of which is not clarification or elucidation, but rather an attempt to derail a discussion or to wear down the patience of one’s opponent.”

Their attack on the process of reaching consensus doesn’t make sense. Almost 200 people came to six “listening sessions” at which they learned about the compromise plan, got Morris to answer their questions, and discussed it in small groups. A small number of opponents of the plan were not only heard but allowed to distribute flyers.

Here’s a condensed version of what the independent organizers of the six listening sessions wrote to the School Committee:

We heard very broad support of the proposal in every listening session. Most felt it represented a ‘good compromise’ that considered several perspectives…A large majority expressed appreciation for the sense of urgency…A large majority said this proposal addresses the poor learning environment…Almost all agreed that open classrooms are not conducive to learning…

Most supported the proposal of one school. Many felt this would allow for a number of efficiencies and expanded learning/social/cultural opportunities…Most very much supported a K-5/K-6 model…Many felt that a school size of 600 was reasonable…Many commented that one new school would have a number of environmental benefits…A large majority believed the proposal was financially responsible. Many appreciated the ‘thoughtful, family-centered approach.’”

Several critics of the previous school proposal, such as Toni Cunningham and Steve Braun, have said they see the compromise plan as the best way forward. I’ve heard that other former critics are on board too. Cunningham recently pointed out on Facebook that building a new 420-student Fort River with state money, and a new 315-student Wildwood without state money, would cost roughly $80 million, crowding out funding for other projects like a fire station, public works facility and Jones Library renovation.

Consensus does not require unanimity, and it would be truly extraordinary if Amherst was 100 percent united. But the report indicates that we have reached a consensus. Now it’s up to the members of the Town Council, in their first really important vote.

The writers of the guest column point to the report of the Fort River Feasibility Committee, which outlines several expensive ways to revive this old building. Sheldon, a member of the committee, says it is not relevant to the current discussion.

We aren’t selecting a site now and we aren’t deciding between renovation or new construction or a combination of the two,” she says. “None of the options we explored was for a 600-student school, and we only looked at the costs of building a building there. We only looked at options that basically mirrored the existing Fort River School and its plans for the near future.”

The writers of the Bulletin column claim that we need more time to make this decision, but Amherst has been talking about this for years. Please read Sheldon’s response:

Not only is it immoral to let this continue a day longer, it also doesn’t make financial sense, which is also a moral issue because shouldn’t we be spending money on teachers and not another round of studies – not to mention the black hole of time that our school staff will spend on this issue instead of working to teach children?”

I hope the Town Council has a discussion Monday that includes not only the dimensions of the problem but the costs of inaction. This debate has been going on long enough.

Comments 3

  1. THE major question no one is asking is “where will we put the students while the new school is being built?”. It takes over a year to put up such a building (ask UMass) and, if you put it at either the FR site or WW, you have to tear down the old one first — and find a place to put those students for a full year. This was *the* deciding factor for the two co-located schools that the voters approved last time. First, build one (half) school on the WW site next to the old WW and, once that done, move the students over into the new building. Next, tear down the old WW and build the other half. And then move the other half of the students over. Otherwise, you have to, at added expense (and disruption), create a temporary campus (where?) while the new building goes up on the site of one of the old schools. That is why we elected a School Committee with a sworn duty to protect present AND FUTURE inhabitants under penalty of law. And why such decisions are not subject to “compromise” with non-elected parties who are not sworn to fiduciary duty and who are responsible to only themselves, like any other voter. Why should some voters have more say than others?! “Consensus”, as we have seen over and over, is merely the most expensive way to arrive at the same conclusion. And as anyone who has built an addition on their house will tell you, the final building configuration “designs itself” based on limiting factors. The limiting factor here is ‘where will we put the kids while the new school is being built’. Having gone through this process once, what has suddenly changed? Where *will* we put the kids while the new school is being built? That is question no one is asking: where?

  2. Fort River and Wildwood Elementary Schools need to be replaced to end the poor health conditions of those buildings and the even more important built-in learning obstacles of the open-walled classrooms that affect many students’ abilities to focus on learning and receive a good education. Although that plan was approved by Amherst’s voters TWICE, a small group of hard-core obstructionists defeated it through the same tactics in the Town Meeting that we saw used in the guest column. The Town Meeting form of government was voted out of existence because they ignored the will of the town’s voters.
    The school superintendent and School Committee have presented yet another very good single-school solution, and the same small group of hard-core obstructionists are trying to derail it. This plan has the unanimous support of the School Committee and you’d be hard pressed to find a parent of a child in either of the schools who opposes it. Many listening sessions were had.
    The guest column in last week’s Bulletin used a tactic from a very familiar playbook in an attempt to stop the progress and delay the new school. Delay and Obstruct.
    The authors’ points are couched in what at first seems like a reasonable tone of waiting to get more information and more inclusion to continue to discuss the problem and see if we can come up with an even better plan and just slow everything down until it eventually stops. Let me remind you who else in history has used this same stalling and delaying tactic, almost always successfully.
    When the shooting and cold-blooded murder of 20 first- and second-grade children and six teachers happened in Sandy Hook Elementary School seven years ago, many good people tried to pass serious gun control laws. Then the NRA and its supporters in the Senate and House instead suggested that a robust dialogue should be had… more discussions… and even more discussions… possibly some different ideas than taking guns out of the hands of killers… and ending with no new serious gun control laws.
    Their proposed never-ending robust discussions that allege to take in all viewpoints just wants to run out the clock until they beat down and wear out the enthusiasm of the people whose hearts broke for those murdered kids. Those obstructionists achieved their goal of delay and obstruct and ended up putting more guns in the hands of child killers. Remember Florida?
    Small groups using tactics of delay and obstruction are not new. We have seen them in every generation on the wrong side of a righteous fight. In the 1960’s, obstructionist Senators from the South used the same delaying tactics to continually prevent good civil rights laws from passing by claiming to want to have more robust dialogue about civil rights and find an even better way to ensure equal rights for all Americans, black and white, by taking their time. That delaying tactic worked during President Kennedy’s three years in office and was finally overcome by President Johnson in 1964 when he pushed the Civil Rights Act through by sheer force of will. And thank God he did, or the obstructionists would have won that one too.
    Obstructionists and delay artists are always going to be with us. They opposed and delayed affordable health care for all of us for more than 50 years. And even when President Obama finally pushed through the Affordable Care Act and made it a law that anyone who needed and wanted health insurance could finally get it at a reasonable price, President Trump and his supporters tried to end guaranteed health insurance by trying to repeal it so they could allegedly discuss an even better plan… more allegedly robust discussions and transparency to take something good away from the people. Thank God a dying Senator John McCain didn’t let that happen.
    Amherst children deserve a safe, healthy elementary school that helps them to learn without placing obstacles in their paths like the open-walled classrooms that distract countless kids from learning and make them feel like they aren’t as smart as the other kids. Are we going to let the obstructionists win again and hurt our children? Our kids don’t have Senator McCain to protect them. All they have is us.

  3. I don’t know how subjective the MSBA approach is. In other words, I don’t know whether the blowback from Gray, McGowan et al in listening sessions, in public comment opportunities, in letters to the editors, or anywhere else ultimately serves their purposes to create caution and apprehension in a state agency. MSBA is probably wary about just how solid an investment of public exploratory money Amherst is. In short, the damage may have already been done by our vocal fellow residents: to slow things down, and make our school building future prohibitively expensive. Three to five dissenting Town Council members probably seals the deal, at least for this year.

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